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These days it seems that to have any self worth you must be young, beautiful and above all thin. The worst offender for these unreasonable standards is advertising; with ultra-thin models being used to sell clothes and techniques such as Photoshop being deployed to create impossible standards of beauty. The idea is that by creating unattainable goals of attractiveness there is a constant growth in the fashion, beauty and dieting industries. Great for consumerism, not so great for the consumer.
While advertising is perhaps the greatest promoter of this confidence-crushing ideal, it is by no means the only one. Within television the majority of characters are slim and gorgeous, with the less than perfect looking people being relegated to the world of comedy. This is also a problem with reality television; not only do shows such as The Hills feature the young, thin and beautiful of the rich elite, there are also countless makeover programs focusing on weight, fashion and cosmetics.
Another large advocator of a perfect body image is women’s magazines with much of their content focussing on weight and beauty. Front pages often feature celebrities with ‘Worst and Best Beach Bodies’, with articles attacking women for gaining weight. These articles manage to make the average women feel she needs to loose weight, wear lashings of make-up and the latest fashions to be beautiful. This idea isn’t helped by the numerous tips on dieting and cosmetics that can almost always be found within the pages of these magazines.
But this is not just a problem for women. While the issue of female body image in the media has been considered problematic for decades, increasingly the same can be said for men as well. Mainstream media representations also play a role in reinforcing ideas about what it means to be a ‘real’ man in our society. From action films to TV and advertising, it seems men must be heavily muscled (or if not, slim), handsome and eminently attractive to women.
So what effect do these representations of both male and female attractiveness have on us? In the best case scenario we might find ourselves dissatisfied with the way we look. Even people who are confident about their bodies probably have something they would change about themselves. But in some cases these influences can lead to such low self-esteem that people go to drastic measures to fit into the ideal; whether it’s opting for unhealthy diets, over exercising, or even plastic surgery.
While media messages promoting ‘thin is in’ may not directly cause eating disorders, they are often acknowledged as among the factors that lead to them. At least 1.1 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, with young people in the age group 14-25 being most at risk of developing these types of illness.
There are some measures in the media to counteract these negative messages about body image. Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ features models of normal, healthy weight (though still heavily Photoshopped). Not so long ago Madrid and Milan, two of the largest fashion capitals, banned models who were underweight based on their BMI. Measures like these spread awareness of the larger issue, sending a positive message to us all that beauty is reality and not an impossibility.